Thursday, August 18, 2011

Max Cooke Interview: Inside Ellie Goulding's Live Show

Lights - Max Gordon Remix by Interscope Records

If you've seen Ellie Goulding's live show, you know it's a great time.  Ellie's vocals sound great in a concert venue, and she's got a great backing band that deliver fantastic renditions of her hit record, Lights.  I caught Ellie's show a few months ago at the World Cafe Live (one of the best venues in Philadelphia, hands down) and was in awe-- I really loved the show.

I recently talked to Max Cooke, Ellie's live keyboardist-- and sometimes guitarist-- about what goes into a show like Ellie's.  Max is also well known for fronting the band Goodbooks a few years ago in the UK.  If you've been to Ellie's shows, looking at the stage, Max is on the right behind a Moog Voyager.  He gave me the inside scoop on all of the tech, and here's your chance to check it all out.  Read on below to see how Ellie's North American tour was built.

Hey Maxwell! Thanks for joining me today. How have the States been treating you this tour?
Max Cooke: "It's been a great tour - we're nearly at the end now, just one show and one festival to go. Every tour that I've played for Ellie on has been different; some have been quite wild, but this one's had a much more calmly confident air about it. American crowds always have a really good time, and the band and crew have been together with very few changes for 18 months now, so we really know the show inside out, which basically results in a great platform to go on and play some awesome shows."

Tell me a bit about yourself. When did you get into music? How long have you been playing keyboards? Do you have other music projects?
"I was born into a musical family - my mother taught music and my father conducts the Royal Choral Society in London. I started violin lessons at the age of 2, piano lessons at 6, and I did 6 years of choir school from 7 until 13, which included a fair amount of recording, TV, radio and touring. One way and another it meant that I was involved in music for at least 30 hours each week, which at that age is a huge amount of time. I fell in love with touring then, even though it was a very different beast to what we're up to at the moment with Ellie!

But despite that childhood based in 'serious' music, from about 7 I was always in love with pop music in various forms; it just felt much more like it was 'meant for me'. I started playing in bands when I was 10, and that was always the way things were going to go. After school I sang and played guitar in a band of my own, GoodBooks, for a few years. We made an album for Columbia in the UK, but it didn't do any real business, so I followed my nose and hid out in Berlin for a bit, and then when this gig with Ellie came up I leaped at the opportunity. That was 18 months ago now, and I've done things I never thought I'd get to do, travelled to some amazing places, and met some people who I'm sure I'll call friends for the rest of my life.

In terms of other projects at the moment, I've kept busy working on a few things in the times when we've not been on tour. I recorded vocals for an album with German producer Kris Menace - we'll be putting that out next year sometime, under the name Stay Gold. We're looking at playing some live shows with that at some point too. I'm also working on plenty of solo stuff with various friends, including the two other members of Ellie's touring band, Joe Clegg and Chris Ketley, and that's another huge privilege that's come out of this job, being able to get together with musicians of their calibre to make music on days off.

I've done a few remixes over the last year too, including one of Ellie that went on the UK release of her 'Lights' single under the pseudonym of Max Gordon. Turns out there's another Max Gordon somewhere in the world, but never mind, it's a bit late for that now!"

Who are some of your favorite artists and producers?
"This could be a long list! The last album I bought was Heligoland by Massive Attack; I've not really kept up with Massive Attack since Mezzanine, but this record has really blown me away. Julian Kindred, who I'm recording with intermittently at the moment, played me some tracks from it during a session earlier in the year, and I'm loving getting to know it in detail.

I'm also spending a lot of time with the Orange Juice box set that Domino put out earlier this year - in terms of the spirit of music and what being a musician should be all about, Edwyn Collins is an absolute hero of mine, in all phases of his life, from the youthful energy of those amazing early Postcard recordings of OJ, through the dry brilliance of 'A Girl Like You', through the very touching story of his recovery from his stroke in the last few years.

In terms of all-time favourite music, Blur are huge heroes of mine (whenever stuck for a guitar line: 'what would Graham do?'). I was lucky enough to see them at Glastonbury in 2009, which was a very special moment for me."

How did you meet Ellie? How long have you been touring with her?
"I actually didn't meet Ellie until I'd been working for her for 6 days already; we had a lot of friends in common, but we first met on day 6 of a week of 12-hour rehearsals, learning up her songs for the first tour. This was in February 2010, which is when I started playing for her."

What is your favorite song to play live?
"I've always loved This Love Will Be Your Downfall - I wasn't familiar with Ellie's music when I first heard about the job, and so obviously I spent a bit of time on YouTube checking out what she'd been up to, and I found a video of her playing that song live, and it was that one that made up my mind to go for it."

What's the synth and gear collection for the tour? I think I recall seeing a Moog Voyager in there back in March...
"The Moog Voyager is the only real point of interest in my live rig; the rest is all coming off MainStage, which is a mixed bag. The idea of what it claims to do is intoxicatingly brilliant, but it's a non-stop fight trying to get it to behave itself. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be a priority for Apple to turn it into the watertight pro app that it would be in an ideal world - I don't dare run any 3rd party plugins or anything, it's all stock Logic softsynths. There's a few things that I've sampled onto the EXS24; the pizzicato strings sound in Under The Sheets is a Reason sound that I resampled 12 notes of. There's a few songs where I have samples from Ellie's record too - in Animal, I trigger the cut up vocal samples at the end of the drum breakdown in the middle, and those run off an EXS24 synth. The Moog goes through MainStage to add effects and processing to the sound, and it's also hooked up via MIDI so that I can use it to trigger polyphonic sounds but still face the front of the stage; for example, I wouldn't want to be side-on for the chorus of Under The Sheets! All my sounds are routed within MainStage, whether they're coming from the Moog or from the laptop, and distributed between a Stereo Laptop feed, Mono Bass, and Mono Lead channels which go to FOH separately. I have a Nord Electro 2 73, and a Yamaha CP-33, which are both just acting as MIDI controllers on stage, although I use the Wurli sound from the Nord when we do the more stripped-back 'acoustic' version of the set."

Do you have a collection of synths at home? What do you have?
"Nope. I'm a guitarist really, so I've got a few of those. I've got a little production room in Hackney, where I keep what toys I do have; again nothing too elaborate, it's just a demo room really. I've got NI Komplete, the Arturia collection, and a few other nice plugins and effects, a Shure SM7, which I've loved since I first sang through one, a pair of Acoustic Energy AE-22 monitors, a couple of strats, a tele, a lovely Ricky 330, Martin 000M, Fender Blues Junior, Line6 M13 (which I seriously rate - never thought I'd say that!)."

A live setup for a band like Ellie's is a bit of a mystery to me. Can you tell me a bit about what the live setup is like?
"Joe, Ellie's drummer, has a couple of Alesis HD24s at the back of the stage, which run backing tracks. It's a fantastically elaborate system, but it really is rock solid, including a complete backup unit and auto-switching system in case the main unit goes down. Joe's the musical director on the project, and since day 1 his aim has been to get as much of what you hear at front of house as possible being played live by the band. We have 8 channels of that running, including a click track that goes to our in-ear monitoring only, but in truth there's very little coming off the track for most of the gig. Two of the channels are a stereo backing vocals track, which we use when we don't have Hannah and Kate, the amazing backing singers. Joe also has a Roland SPD-S next to his hi hats, and a drum pad between his toms, as well a a trigger clipped onto his rack tom, which provides the tom noise in the chorus of 'Animal'.

Chris has an arsenal of instruments - his bass guitar rig is the tried and tested Ampeg 8x10, with a few 'dive-bomb' pitch pedals on the floor, which you hear in 'Your Biggest Mistake' and a couple of others. His electric guitar rig at the moment is a Les Paul and a Tele, going through a few Boss pedals (more pitch shifters, eg the solo in 'Every Time You Go' and a Line6 PodXT, which does the reverby delay effect in 'Human', fed into a Blackstar amp. Then for keys he's got a Roland Juno-G, a Roland VK8 and Yamaha SX70S, as well as a Motif Rack mainly for piano sounds. He's also got a sampler, which Ellie goes over and plays sometimes ('oh oh starry eyed' etc).

Besides my keys rig, I have a kick drum on a keyboard stand, which I whack at various moments in the set, and my Martin acoustic, which I play in 'Human' and 'Home'."

What is a good way to perform using hardware synthesizers and have them all change patches throughout and in between songs, etc?
"I have a Voodoo Labs Ground Control MIDI footswitching unit, which tells both the Moog and the laptop which program to change to. Chris just changes each of his synths individually - he doesn't do as much switching within songs, so he has a little more time to get that done. Joe's the same, just selecting programs on both the HD24s and the SPD-S manually."

Do you have any good stories from the tour?

Thanks for joining me, Max.


  1. Ellie is seriously talented. She’s so beautiful, and she sings like an angel. I attended one of her concerts in a Chicago event space in 2016, and it was amazing,. She’s one of those amazing singers who really rock the live shows. Waiting for her 2018 stuff!

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